When Taiwanese native Elena Liao was just a toddler, her parents entered her into a lottery for a U.S. green card, which she knew nothing about until, at the age of thirteen, she won. Her mom moved her to California. A year later, after setting her daughter up in a boarding school, Liao’s mom returned to Taiwan, regularly sending care packages filled to the brim with Taiwanese oolong. Whenever Liao went home, she’d bring back even more. “When guests would come to my house, my mom wouldn’t even ask, she’d just go and make tea,” says Liao. “It’s kind of just part of my life.”
That warming ritual and those familiar flavors were the closest tangible connection the teenager had to her family while at school.
In 2009, after the economic downturn, like so many other professionals, Liao watched anxiously as colleagues in her retail career were quickly dismissed through multiple rounds of layoffs — and then found herself without a job. “I saw you could work for a company for twenty years, and they could just let you go,” she says.
Through it all, Liao held tight to her old form of comfort. And, after studying and researching — treating the tea in the same way third-wave coffee folks deliberated over beans — eventually she started her own business along with her husband, chef Frederico Ribeiro. After years of supplying online buyers and some of the most prestigious restaurants in the city (think Per Se and Eleven Madison Park), last fall the couple opened their first retail location, Té Company (163 West 10th Street, 929-335-3168).
Up a flight of brownstone steps, the store is housed inside the space that for seventeen years was the home of Bonnie Slotnick’s cookbook shop. (The book dealer relocated to the East Village last winter.) In a corner, above one of two rustic gray wood tables, a few shelves display vintage tomes commemorating Slotnick, and a stack of cards with the address of the bookstore’s new location is displayed for customers looking to find her. An espresso-colored counter with menus and snacks sits toward the back of the narrow storefront. To the left and right are tidy shelves bearing teas and tea-making accoutrements.
On a recent visit, Liao, in a pair of white skinny jeans, a brown motorcycle jacket, and leather Converses, was chatting it up with tourists relaxing with cups of tea. “Great to see you again,” she remarked to a middle-aged trio as they prepared to leave. They’d discovered the café the previous day. “See you in Philly,” one of the women responded. “Or back here, now that we know where you are.”
For Liao, the road from corporate employee to small-business owner was like a journey along a cross-country interstate. After being dismissed from her position at Ann Taylor, Liao had time on her hands. When one of her friends who was in a similar boat told Liao she was going to take a barista class, it got Liao thinking: Why isn’t there anything like that for tea?
She took it upon herself to do the research. She Googled extensively, visited tea gardens when she went to see her family at home in Taiwan, and bought books on folklore and history. Because she had been drinking it her entire life, Liao started with oolong before expanding into Japanese matchas and Sri Lankan black teas. “I always had this habit [of drinking tea], but I didn’t know very much,” Liao says. “Every year I go to Taiwan, and every time it’s a very humbling experience. Like, I know nothing. I always find something new.”
As she accrued knowledge, Liao took a job with Victoria’s Secret; however, in 2012, she started selling Taiwanese oolongs to restaurants. Per Se, where Ribeiro was working at the time, was the first order. Then she landed Eleven Madison Park. That was a huge boost to Liao’s confidence. She started expanding her portfolio with new styles and a growing roster of farmers and purveyors. Liao’s parents would go through industry networks to help her hunt down a wider array of products. Liao took her last sourcing trip in March, signing a lease in July. She worked part time until close to the point of opening at the end of October.
As it turns out, Taiwan’s national beverage comprises the most sought-after oolongs in the world. The high elevation and attendant fog and cool temperatures promote slower growth for the buds, which intensifies the flavors. Once they’re handpicked, the buds are withered, kneaded, and roasted. The wilted, loose leaves relax into their original shape once steeped. Oolongs are always semi-oxidized, starting at around 15 percent, moving to 40 percent, and going all the way to around 70 percent oxidation. If a tea experiences no oxidation, it’s green. At 100 percent, it’s considered black. The notes in Taiwanese oolongs range from floral and grassy dried fig and nectar to smoky evergreen. Liao has detailed descriptions of each tea on her menu and she’s enthusiastic about helping customers nail down a choice.
She sits up straight and motions with her hands as she describes the harvest process of one farmer who lays out his freshly picked leaves on bamboo mats under a shaded cover. “You have to be a very experienced tea maker. It’s a true craft,” says Liao. “You have to be in sync with nature.”
As she pours and steeps samples, her excitement is even more blatantly evident. She talks about one variety that’s cultivated by Buddhist monks on the peak of a mountain in the Pinglin district. She calls it Green Sanctuary. On another, Oriental Beauty, Liao gets scientific, discussing how insects contribute to the variety’s unique muscat grape aroma. When the plant is bitten, it releases a hormone that intensifies the notes during the oxidation process. “It’s a thousand-year-old beverage with so much heritage,” says Liao, raising her brows. “You can really geek out about it.”
Liao and Ribeiro’s initial goal was to open a tea room and restaurant. Finding a space proved more difficult than expected, so Liao settled on a standalone café. Still, with his culinary background coming into play, Ribeiro has created a short list of snacks: salame ($5), cheese ($6), tortilla de patata ($6), an excellent pineapple-lime linzer cookie, and a rotating selection of pastries, sandwiches, and salads.